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Nationality Medicines in China: Institutional Rationality and Healing Charisma

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 March 2015

Lili Lai
Institute of Medical Humanities, Peking University
Judith Farquhar*
Anthropology, University of Chicago


This article describes emergent Chinese regimes of knowledge about “minority nationality medicines.” We adopt Weberian terms of rational and charismatic authority to better understand ethnic healing as it is developing among minorities in southwestern China. In the course of uneven development among diverse ethnic groups over recent decades, modern information regimes and institutional models have started to transform the many forms of healing and heritage that can be found “on the ground” in minority areas. We delineate a shifting border between official (or rational) and wild (or charismatic) forms of medicine, and argue that every healing situation results from a dynamic and sometimes destructive relation between these forms of authority. We draw from research conducted among seven minority nationalities scattered in five provinces in China's south and southwest. After an overview of relevant scholarly work that circulates nationally, we discuss views and practices of three healers belonging to Zhuang, Tujia, and Yao groups, respectively. Ultimately we suggest that all healing, including that taking place in biomedical clinics, relies on some contact with “the wild,” and forges a relationship between rationality and charisma.

Research Article
Copyright © Society for the Comparative Study of Society and History 2015 

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